For the second in the series of interviews exploring PhD students’ creative practice projects, John Edwards met Richard White at the Holburne Museum in Bath to learn more about his interdisciplinary approaches to history and landscape.
My PhD is about walking and social media
The walks are creative, performative and participatory. I’m exploring different strategies and gambits of what you can do when people agree to take part in a walk.
They are open to anyone, but I do limit the number of walkers to 12 max because it needs to be quite intimate. They are curated in a way, in that we will stop at certain points, or give people some direction, such as to walk in silence for a while, or pay attention to textures and touch, or to introduce certain ideas.
I’m messing with time, the here and now, with juxtaposition of time and place. It’s not a history walk and I’m not going to lead it in that sense, but I’ll kind of hold the ring. For example, on a walk through Bath, I’ll point out that the people who lived in this house owned however many slaves and claimed however much compensation for releasing them and that changes how you see that place. Then people will post a response and that’s what I’m looking for.
Viewranger and Social Hiking are apps trying to entice serious hikers to play with social media. Viewranger is more commercial, selling maps etc, but Social Hiking is an online community of people using different ways of turning their mobile phone into a tracking device. With Viewranger you can aggregate social media profiles, so all our text postings, audio and photographs get tagged to the route of the walk.
As I go along it’s becoming more about walking, more about embodied knowledge, and the social media aspect has become more a way of documenting process. When it happens it’s good, but you can’t force people to use something the way you want them to. So far it’s been glimpses of possibility.
To begin with people will be taking nice, conventional landscape photographs, but after you get a conversation going about what you’re thinking about and what you’re noticing, people start to get their eye in and you start seeing different things and more thoughtful responses.
My Forced Walks: Honouring Esther project transposed a route from a Nazi death march into a different landscape, in Somerset
On the basis of interviews, testimonies and background research, we found the route of the death march, then used software that allows you to move the line of the walk, but retain its orientation and scale. You could put it anywhere, so it’s a way of bringing that experience home and into these times, connecting it with our lives now.
My partner had been doing work with the old Jewish burial ground at Combe Down, so we set that as the end of the walk, which made the starting point just outside Frome. Then I worked out a route using public rights of way, which was the actual route we walked. It made a DNA kind of spiral, and where the routes crossed we made a series of ten stopping points, where we held readings and conversations. Later we did the walk in Germany we stopped at these same points, but there the imaginary map was the route from Somerset.
Then you get the serendipity of what comes up. We found out that the first soldiers into Belsen included soldiers from the Somerset Light Infantry and it turned out that the grandfather and great-uncle one of the Frome councillor’s were among them.
When we were in Germany we found relics of a slave labour camp we didn’t know existed. One woman we met was a kind of guardian of the village memory, and she had a phone call the morning of the first day of the walk from someone who’d been a witness to a beating and a shooting outside the slave labour camp.
Memories were surfacing that hadn’t come up before because of what we were doing. People who were of an age where their parents had told them: you didn’t see anything, don’t tell anybody, this is dangerous knowledge. People wanted to share memories with us because we were there.
One thing I’ve learned is that if you’re seen to be making an effort to walk to a place, it echoes a pilgrimage, and opens up conversations and sets off all kinds of things.
I’m inspired by walking artists and psychogeographers
Precursors or examples of this kind of project include Paula Levine and Phil Smith, who are serious, but also very playful, messing with ideas in the tradition of psychogeographers. Bill Aitchison also has a playful approach; he’ll go to a city and do all the walks and then improvise a kind of garbled version – he’s done one about Bath. Then there’s the legendary walking artists like Hamish Fulton and Richard Long. I went on a walk with Hamish Fulton which made me appreciate the stillness and calmness at the heart of the way he works.
Doing the PhD has made me more serious and critical about my practice
I’m scratching away at remnants and relics to see what they might reveal, things that have either been deliberately obscured or people have moved away, which takes me back to power and ideology and who gets to tell the stories. Slavery has been banished from the way Bath tells its story, but on these walks we’re tracing fingerprints, if you think of it in a forensic kind of way, to reveal evidence of slave owners all over Bath.
What makes my approach a bit different is to acknowledge that very little walking in the history of humanity has been done for pleasure or for enlightenment. Most walking has been go to work or get food, to get away from something, or an exodus at gunpoint, or to move away from climate change and find somewhere new to be. It was a gear change in my practice, to acknowledge that.
I’m trying in a meditative way to turn down the brain talk, the intellect, and feel what my body is saying about how I’m being in the world, informed by my senses as much as my thoughts.
I first started to be aware of this when walking around the white horses in Wiltshire. We were about 5 miles out, up high, and I felt a rush of joy just being in this place. Then walking in the pouring rain in Germany, I was feeling the emotion, a deep connected sadness.
There are things I know only through walking that I can’t express any other way yet and I don’t know what those ways will be.
Our Undisciplined Reading Group is getting deeper into theoretical texts
Some of these I’ve read before, but not quite been comfortable with. These are non-representational approaches that challenge the idea of landscape as storytelling. There are other approaches we can make that remove the primacy of the overview, the ‘God view’. Maybe there are resonances between that and discourses from Geography, Ecofeminism and New Materialism.
Ideally, my PhD viva would include a walk
Social media would be an important part of it, with sound, pictures, video maybe, some text. I’ve got a back catalogue of short films, text, photographs and notebooks people have drawn in, so I could also have an exhibition in the basement gallery at Corsham Court. Maybe I could recruit some people to come along and show what I do in practice for half an hour or so, coupled with an exhibition.
More information about Richard and his projects may be found at his website: http://www.walknowtracks.co.uk